I have not observed the Jewish New Year in synagogue in many years. When my mother was still alive [as hard as that is to type], we always had a special dinner, complete with apples, honey and matzoh ball soup, even though she had long since abandoned her efforts to have us join her at services. And in the last few years, my acknowledgment of the holidays has dwindled to some annual phone calls and deeply encoded wishes exchanged with my sister.
But this year, I used the days off from school to attend a workshop on Undoing Racism, and for the first time since I can remember, I have a sense of renewal and purpose as the year begins.
Sitting for two days in a room with 30 other people covering a range of ages, ethnicities, and professions, I found myself completely humbled by my dawning awareness of the systems which perpetuate the status quo. The workshop was facilitated with inclusive kindness, humor, and unflinching honesty by two trainers – Ron Chisom and Joe Barndt – who have organized and worked to dismantle racism for years. They led us through a discussion of the history of the concept of race, a power analysis of poor communities of color, and finally to a definition of racism, which, perhaps, many of us in the room had not used. The first day finished with an examination of how internalized racial oppression enslaves and destroys all of us [in different ways]. We also spent a long time discussing our roles – all of us – as gatekeepers of some sort, and how we could be more accountable as gatekeepers if that was a part we needed to play.
The second day involved more intimate conversations – venting of frustration, cries of emotional pain, sharing of warmth and acknowledgment. Each person had the opportunity to reflect, question, and receive feedback on the experience of the first day. Each person also had the opportunity to share what they liked about their race identification. The contrast between the people of color and the white people was painful and startling – because what the people of color in the room liked – loved – about themselves was much richer, more personal, and way more connected than anything any of the white people said. The white attributes, while definitely accompanied by privilege, were cold and disconnected. Somehow this paucity, this loneliness hit me harder than many other things I had heard. All of a sudden I saw our cultural appropriations as cheap ways to piggyback on someone else’s heritage, a sad echo of something lost long ago.
We finished the workshop with an analysis of the institutions each of us worked in, and where they stood on the Anti-Racist spectrum – from “Club House” to “Multicultural” to “A Changing Institution”. Not surprisingly, upon a close look, most organizations, while multicultural, still exhibit signs of paternalism and privilege, despite their ‘diversity’ programs.
[NOTE: This is a very superficial and over-simplified description – for the sake of brevity and privacy – of a personally (and hopefully professionally) transformative experience. I encourage anyone who is truly interested in change in this world to attend a workshop like this.]
This morning, during our circle of feedback, I expressed the discomfort that I was isolated at school in my viewpoint. Unlike the others at the training, I attended on my own – most others were sent by their organizations. And as a teacher, and particularly one of high school math, I am by definition a gatekeeper. I am not sure how to use my experience to transform anything, other than my own consciousness, but I am aware of my responsibility to try to do so. While I wasn’t given any easy answers, my concerns were acknowledged, addressed, and some suggestions were made. Other participants reached out to me in support, and offers of future connection, and we even found some commonalities that were not at all apparent.
I am afraid this post sounds very vague, and maybe even jargon-y. But I can tell you as I am sitting here typing this that I have been profoundly changed by this experience. I do not yet know how this will manifest itself in my life, in my relationships at home and at work, or in my classroom. But I am grateful for the enrichment and the pain that this new awareness brings.